PCT Day 127 : Downhill To Town

August 9 (~06:45 – ~19:45)
Porcupine Lake – Kettlebelly Trail Junction / Castle Crags Campground (29.6 mi / Total: 1501.7 mi) (+2.2+ bonus miles to Castle Crags Campground and Castella)
Total PCT miles: 1989.8
Weather: Chilly! It’s cloudy during the day and doesn’t get sunny until later in the afternoon. At night there’s an intense thunderstorm.

I’m excited when I wake up. Today I’m going to get to town. Well, not town exactly, but I hope to get to the paid campground close to the Interstate that will subsequently take me to town tomorrow. Just one more 30 mile day, and I’ll be able to shower and rest.

But that’s not all. The actual highlight of today is that I’ll finally be going downhill. This is like a far flung dream to me, and the prospect makes me feel as though I’ve never been happier in my life. I pack up faster than usual, and leave the tentsite without having been able to fully appreciate the lake I was staying at. Instead I follow the short spur trail back to the PCT, which is subtly glowing in morning light, the mountains layered in tones of grey, the air still cold. Today is different – it’s chilly, clouds have drawn in from afar, and after all the heat, it’s a blessing to be walking in cooler temperatures.

But before I begin the much anticipated downhill, the trail leads me through a comfortable rolling landscape, the easy path muscle therapy for my tired legs. It’s not until the one sharp climb out of Shasta-Trinity Gumboot trailhead (during which I immediately half-collapse and start panting) that I realise today’s beginning and end actually do include some short climbs and descends. Most of them are energising though, the downhills powering me for the uphills, and that’s how it should be all the time, that’s the way I like it.

The trail leads me along a ridge walk, now with faded views of Mt Shasta and a clear path through piles of rock. I’m almost out of water and the next source is not for another 10 miles, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the water along this elevated stretch. But with the cooler weather I’m not that thirsty – had it been as hot as the previous days, having almost no water would’ve made this a difficult morning.

Then the downhill begins, my dream. It’s a consistent descend, down a green mountainside. I enter Castle Crags Wilderness, and soon the mountain of rock that it features reveals itself, and I can see why it’s called a castle. It’s a majestic occurrence, the rocky peaks rounded, a solid, regal presence. The trail turns to switchbacks now, affording the same-but-slightly-different views of the enormous mount of rock and although it’s always the same, this one stays gorgeous.

Once I get to lower elevation the last erratic elevation changes occur. I move in and out of a shaded forest, where I get attacked by black flies. When I’m in the sun, they seem to disappear, but once I’m in the shade again they swarm around my eyes. I get hot and tired now – the sun has come out again, belatedly, and I feel like I just want to be done with the day. Instead I lean against a rock, trying to get the courage together for a small uphill.

It’s just after 7 when I walk through a solid forest and I reach the turnoff to the official Castle Crags campground. I’m not sure whether to head straight in – it’s another few miles along the side trail, but I’m only 0.5 miles from the Interstate where I left off last time I was here as a northbounder. I need to hike that last 0.5 miles, but I’m not sure if the campground closes at any particular time. Should I finish this section tonight? After a quick think I go for it – let’s tag the Interstate and run back, so I don’t have to do it in the morning.

And I run. I run down the hill and just as I’ve picked up speed, I hear a noise below me, the loud creaking of trees. I stop – it’s a bear, hugging a tree. He’s just in between the trail and the switchback down below. I look at him, and he looks back, so I move behind a tree so he can’t see me. It’s quiet now. I guess the bear is waiting for my next move. I’m not sure if I keep going I’ll spook him – with the switchback I’ll be running past him twice, and I’d have to come back up running past him again. Perhaps it’s best not to.

So I run back, I’ll have to leave the final 0.5 miles for tomorrow. I enter the side trail to the campground and follow it, carefully watching out for bears, they seem to love it there. The trail to the campground is long, much longer than I’d hoped, and when I reach the campsite the PCT area has quite a few people already, and I struggle to get my pegs into the hard ground in the small space available. It has self-registration envelopes, but I don’t have a pen to fill one out, and once I’m set up I continue the trail to the office and the gas station store, walking through the dark woods in the disappearing light.

The store has practically nothing of interest. There’s no decent food, so I’m left buying some chocolate and crisps, and then I head to the nearby campground office before it closes at 9:30. I ask for shower coins – I’ve been planning this shower for days now, I won’t leave without taking one. I figured, if I shower now I can do laundry immediately once I get into town tomorrow. When the ranger finds out I’m a PCT hiker he gives me the coins for free and I even get an extra one for a longer shower. Apparently, any paid for but unused coins get donated to us hikers. I’m excited about the free shower, and the long spooky walk through the campground forest was almost worth it now. I also pay the reduced PCT fee for my spot – $5 instead of $28 for a proper site, and follow the road back to the tents. I’m happy when no bears appear in the dark.

When I get back I take some time to locate the showers. The water takes takes some time to warm so I’m happy with the extra coin. When I’m back in my tent it’s late, and it begins to rain. Shortly after, the skies begin to thunder and lightning lights up the sky. It lasts for hours, the thunder and lightning increasingly fighting for attention. I’ve never heard anything louder, or watched the sky light up so much. I’m happy I’m hidden deep in the trees, and that there are so many people nearby. I can’t imagine how terrified I’d be if I’d been alone.

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